SALT LAKE CITY — The statewide mask mandate may be set to end this weekend, but Utahns will still need to keep their face coverings handy as many businesses will continue requiring them.
And more than 70% of residents say they're OK with that, according to a new poll.
The majority of Utahns (52%) strongly believe businesses should be allowed to continue requiring masks in the effort to end the COVID-19 pandemic while 19% strongly believe they should not, the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll found. Another 19% of residents say they somewhat agree that businesses should be able to keep requiring masks, 8% say they somewhat disagree, and 1% aren't sure.
The poll results are refreshing news to Missy Greis, owner of Salt Lake City-based Publik Coffee, where patrons will still be required to wear masks Saturday and for the foreseeable future.
"We believe masks work. Our proof for ourselves is just that out of 64 employees, only five contracted COVID — and none of them at work. So no one transmitted it or contracted it at work, and we've been wearing masks," she said.
The poll was conducted March 26-31 by Scott Rasmussen of 1,000 registered voters throughout the state. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Poll results were similar across each age group, with 50% of those ages 18-34 agreeing that businesses should be able to continue requiring masks, as well as 53% of those ages 35-54 and 51% of those ages 55 and up.
But Democrats had a much higher likelihood of supporting ongoing business mask requirements, at 83% compared to 35% of Republicans and 56% of those from other parties or unaffiliated voters.
Utah's mask mandate ends on Saturday. The Utah Legislature passed a bill early last month to lift the statewide mandate on April 10 and lay ground rules for when other COVID-19 restrictions on state and local levels will be terminated. Masks will still be required in schools and for large gatherings. Under the new law, counties can still vote to extend their own mask mandates.
Greis expressed frustration that the mask mandate is ending on an "arbitrary" date despite guidelines from national health officials. Gov. Spencer Cox is also "listening to the science" by requiring state employees to continue wearing masks at work, she noted, which might send a mixed message.
"We've made it this far, we've come so far, we've sacrificed so much, not just as an industry, food and beverage and bars and restaurants, but just as a community. We've sacrificed so much," Greis said.
"We're working so hard. Our employers are, in many ways, they're having to confront the community and customers who are being told by the Legislature that they can take their masks off on April 10," she said, adding that businesses know "we're going to have this conversation on a daily level" with some customers.
But she said she's optimistic because of the support from most in the Salt Lake community for continuing to wear masks.
Business community speaks
Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, said he wasn't surprised by the poll results, as they are consistent with attitudes observed during the pandemic.
"Our position is that businesses ought to choose for themselves what's right for their employees and their customers about whether or not they want to continue requiring masks in their place of businesses," Miller said.
That includes retail businesses as well as those that don't directly face customers but have many employees, including at worksites, manufacturing facilities and organizations like the chamber.
"Every business has the right to choose for themselves what makes sense for them," Miller said.
Companies' plans on requiring masks vary throughout the state, he said. For example, City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City will continue to do so because it is "a very busy place" comprised of retail in the "most dense, urban area in the state of Utah," Miller said.
But some of the state's more rural areas such as Kane County have seen low COVID-19 case counts throughout the pandemic.
"And so for a business there, it may not make sense to continue to require masks," according to Miller.
When asked whether some business owners worry of customers becoming angry due to ongoing mask requirements, Miller pointed to the state's experience last year before county and state mandates went into effect.
"It was controversial," Miller said, leading to situations where store employees, sometimes teenagers making minimum wage, were left facing the brunt of customers' anger at being required to wear masks.
"I know that we're certainly smarter than we are a year ago, I also hope that we'll be kinder than we often saw a year ago," Miller said.
I know that we're certainly smarter than we are a year ago, I also hope that we'll be kinder than we often saw a year ago.
–Derek Miller, president and CEO, Salt Lake Chamber
Customers also have the right to make their own choices as well, he said, urging those who are uncomfortable going to businesses that don't require masks to shop elsewhere, and those who oppose mask requirements to shop at places that don't require them.
"Regardless of those choices, we ought to be more understanding and kinder to each other," Miller said.
He emphasized that Utah's Stay Safe to Stay Open campaign — started last year by the Salt Lake Chamber to urge businesses to follow health guidelines and requirements — helped the state keep its economy stronger than those of other states.
"And sure enough, it worked. I mean, look at Utah's economy today," Miller said, pointing to the 3.1% unemployment rate and ongoing job growth.
Now that vaccines are available, "we're actually heading into the light. We're heading out of the pandemic. So there's reason for hope for all of us," Miller said.
Harmons, one of the state's largest grocery store chains, announced in March it plans to keep its current COVID-19 safety practices in place, including masks for all shoppers and employees.
"It only makes sense for us to continue to see this through to the end. We really believe our customers want us to do that, too," Mark Jensen, Harmons CEO and president, said last month, adding that Harmons anticipates more business as a result of continuing to take precautions against the spread of the virus.
Other supermarkets and large retail chains around the country, including Walmart, Costco, and Kroger (the parent companies of Smith's), Albertsons and Target, have said they will continue to require masks be worn.
The Utah Jazz and Vivint Arena also announced Monday those who attend home games or other events at the arena, except when eating or drinking, will be required to wear masks for the foreseeable future.
"We continue to prioritize the health and safety of our fans, employees and players," Utah Jazz President Jim Olson said in a statement Monday.
"We are pleased that fans have been able to attend games since December in a limited capacity with incremental increases. While progress is being made with ongoing vaccinations, we are staying the course to maintain a safe and comfortable environment and will adjust our plans as public health conditions improve," he said.
'There's still people who are vulnerable'
Even as vaccinations rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to wear masks when in public settings around those who live outside of their own household, especially places where social distancing can be difficult.
Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Health, wants residents to remember that the pandemic isn't over yet despite the loosening of restrictions.
"We're doing great in terms of getting people vaccinated, which is going to help us end the pandemic, and I certainly don't want to downplay that progress that we're making. But of course we do encourage businesses to continue requiring masks if they choose to do that, and to continue encouraging people to wear masks," Johnson said.
Not everyone has had a chance to be vaccinated yet, including those under age 16, "so there's still a lot of people who are vulnerable to the virus," she said.
Johnson encouraged Utahns to continue wearing masks even in businesses that don't require them, as they could unknowingly encounter others who are high risk.
The governor also has made it clear he hopes businesses continue to require masks even without a state mandate, Johnson noted, adding that masks remain required for gatherings of 50 or more people.
"If you go to a business and they are requiring you to wear masks, don't yell at the clerk. Don't yell at the store manager," Cox said last month. "Don't make a fool of yourself because you don't want to wear a mask. ... And if you don't like it, go shop somewhere else, OK?"
Nicholas Rupp, spokesman with the Salt Lake County Health Department, said the county will continue following national health recommendations for face masks until the area reaches herd immunity, and the department supports businesses that want to protect their staff by requiring masks.
He acknowledges that cases have gone down in the county and state, and the availability of vaccines also plays a part in the conversation as they're seen as the most effective intervention for the pandemic, but health officials are concerned that more community transmission will occur when face mask requirements end.
"We know that spread occurs in places where masks are not worn," he said.
When mask mandates went into action last year, more spread of the disease started occurring in homes, he said.
"And so if businesses do not choose to require masks in their establishment, there is concern that spread will again start happening in those environments," he said.